Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Three Lessons in Operative Magic

I really did intend to talk about something other than the vagaries of the Neopagan scene this month. The politics of contemporary Neopaganism deserved a passing glance, if only because those of us who are still practicing magic when the Neopagan wave flows back out to sea will have to deal with the social consequences of its vagaries for years to come, and there’s also a wry amusement to be gained by watching people insist rhat the best way to create a diverse and tolerant Paganism is to use bullying and ostracism to enforce rigid ideological uniformity on the Pagan scene. Still, such entertainments are peripheral to the purpose of this blog.

It so happens, though, that one of the other tempests currently raging in the Neopagan teapot offers something a good deal more relevant to the concerns of The Well of Galabes. Operative magic—the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, to use Dion Fortune’s definition—is one of the core disciplines of the occult philosophy I’m exploring here, and the tempest in question provides three really quite solid lessons in certain basic elements of operative magic. This is less of a compliment than it sounds, but we’ll get to that.

A little background might be helpful. Early last year, a Stanford undergraduate athlete named Brock Turner raped a woman outside of a college party. Unlike most rapists, he got caught and was brought to trial. He was convicted on three counts of sexual assault, but the judge—not coincidentally, perhaps, a Stanford graduate and former athlete—sentenced him to a much shorter sentence than usual. This was seen by a good many people, and not unreasonably, as a flagrant miscarriage of justice.

Enter certain members of the Pagan community. On June 8, an article on a popular Pagan website called for Pagans to join together en masse to cast hexes on Turner, the judge, and Turner’s father, who had made some gratuitously offensive public remarks in defense of his son. The idea seems to have been that since the justice system had failed to punish Turner, the Neopagan community would do it instead, by cursing him and the others involved with various colorful forms of misery and misfortune. 

Those of my readers who follow the Pagan blogosphere know how the resulting debates shaped up. It was all phrased in ethical terms; critics of the project insisted that those who participated in it would be punished by karma, the threefold law, or what have you, for engaging in what was, after all, magic meant to cause harm to others—that is to say, evil magic.  Proponents of the project insisted with equal heat that they didn’t believe in the things their critics spoke of, and that any action other than taking part in the hexing amounted to sitting by passively while Brock Turner got away with rape.

Are there important ethical issues in the situation? No doubt there are, but I don’t propose to get into them here. Nietzsche’s sly definition of ethics as the art of propping up inherited prejudices with bad logic has lost neither its sting nor its relevance since his time. In the Neopagan scene or out of it, furthermore, there’s no ethical consensus of the kind that would allow those issues to be settled in any meaningful sense, so ethical disputes inevitably come down to people with irreducibly different presuppositions talking past one another.

What hasn’t been addressed, as far as I know, are the issues of practical operative occultism that are raised by a project of the sort under discussion. That’s what I propose to talk about here.

It’s probably necessary to start off by noting that magic is not whatever you want it to be. It’s an ancient, subtle, and delicate art backed up by a body of knowledge—a science in the older sense of that word—that’s been gathered from something like three thousand years of practical experience in the Western world, and longer than that in the East. One consequence of this is that the laws of magic, like the laws of physics, don’t care whether you believe in them. In magic as in physics, some things work, some things don’t, and some things quite reliably blow up in your face and leave splinters in your flesh.  Learning which of these is which is an important part of a magical education—something that you can study with a teacher, in a magical lodge, or in that venerable institution, the School of Hard Knocks.

So let’s take a look at the campaign to hex Brock Turner from the point of view of operative magic, and see what we can learn.

The first task in any magical working is deciding exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish, and here a simple but immensely important rule holds sway: your working should focus on ends, not means. If the thing you want is X, in other words, your working will be most effective if you focus all your efforts on X itself, and let the magic sort out the intermediate steps that will get you X. 

This works because magic gains power from unity of focus. The more precisely you concentrate your efforts on a single goal, that is, the more likely you are to achieve it, while the more you diffuse your efforts in multiple directions, the more likely you are to fail to achieve any of them. If you concentrate everything you’ve got on the end, as a result, you’re much more likely to achieve it than if you divide your concentration between the end and the means you think you need to get the end.

What if you put all your concentration into the means? Embarrassingly often, this results in achieving the means, but in a way that doesn’t contribute toward achieving the end. There’s an old and famous story of a man who tried to become rich by doing a series of workings in which he visualized himself handling vast stacks of money. Shortly thereafter he lost his job, and the only job he could get was a position at a bank, where he labored eight hours a day at a modest wage counting vast stacks of other people’s money. He’d focused on the means—money in his hands—rather than the end—a lifestyle of wealth and financial comfort—and gotten the one and not the other.

Now of course the difficulty here, and it’s not a small one, is that in order to focus your working on ends rather than means, you have to know what you actually want. That’s not a straightforward thing, as human beings pretty much by definition are bundles of mixed motives and misunderstood desires. Half the reason that most people never manage to achieve happiness in life is that they never get around to figuring out what would make them happy, and so they keep on chasing the things they think they want rather than the thing that would actually satisfy their innermost needs. When dealing with a working like the Brock Turner hex, though, we can set aside these perplexities and simply ask: what is this working supposed to accomplish?

The purported intention offered by the proponents of the working is to bring justice to a situation in which it is clearly lacking. That’s a laudable intention, but something very curious happens when—as has already happened—someone asks, “Then why are you trying to cast a curse? Why not instead do a working focused explicitly on bringing justice to the situation?”  The standard response on the part of the proponents of the working is to dismiss this as a namby-pamby, milksop sort of half-measure, and to insist that only fullblown malevolent magic will do.  It’s an odd answer, all things considered, but it’s not new to this case; I’ve seen it in quite a few similar debates before now.

It’s not as though justice is actually a namby-pamby, milksop sort of thing, you know. Strict retributive justice is scary stuff. It’s the opposite of mercy; it means that what you do gets done to you, no wiggle room, no leniency, no second chances. In astrological symbolism, retributive justice is assigned to Saturn, the Greater Malefic, the cold and implacable planet of time, fate, and hard limits. In Pagan religious symbolism, justice corresponds to as tough and intransigent a set of deities as you’ll find anywhere. In the Cabala, justice is a correspondence of the terrible fifth sephirah Geburah, the sphere of severity and strict judgment. So...why isn’t this an adequate intention for the working?

I suspect the reason has to do with one of the unmentionable realities of contemporary American social life—the fact that so many Americans these days long desperately for a good excuse to hurt someone. Watch the way that Americans behave toward anyone they’ve decided it’s okay to hate, and you can count on seeing a really impressive degree of viciousness in action. This is why we fetishize vampires and zombies, why mass murderers occupy so large a place in our collective imagination, why policies that punish the poor for their own destitution enjoy bipartisan support, and so on.

The media circus around Brock Turner’s sentencing has brought this same reaction down on him. The people who are calling for malevolent magic to be flung at him clearly don’t want justice, since they’ve rejected the concept as an explicit goal for their magic, and as far as I’ve seen, they show only the most pro forma concern for the woman he raped—where are the mass workings to bring her healing and justice?  Rather, they want to take part in the magical equivalent of the kind of Old West lynch mob that used to haul unpopular felons out of jail, tie rope around their feet, drag them behind galloping horses over rough ground for ten miles or so, and then splash kerosene onto what was left and set it on fire.

Mixed motives, for reasons discussed earlier, are a hindrance to effective magic. If you want to bring justice into a situation, you need to direct your magical efforts toward justice. If you want to drop the facade of bland plastic niceness that governs most social interactions in America, on the other hand, and wallow in the delights of beating and bullying someone, then it’s probably a good idea to admit that to yourself and drop the pretense that justice has anything to do with the matter.

It’s at this point, though, that we move to the second lesson that can be drawn from the campaign to hex Brock Turner. Another important rule of magic is generally called the law of repercussion, though I prefer to call it the Raspberry Jam Principle. Just as you can’t spread raspberry jam on a slice of bread without getting at least a little of it on your own fingers, that is, you can’t work with magical forces without those forces having some effect on you.

I probably need to note again that this is not a matter of ethics, any more than it’s an ethical judgment to point out that drinking drain cleaner is bad for your digestion. The law of repercussion doesn’t mean that somebody up in the clouds is passing judgment on you; it’s as impersonal, automatic, and pitiless as gravity. Nor, by the way, do you have to believe in it for it to affect you; the laws of magic, like the laws of physics, don’t care if you believe in them or not. The reason this principle works is simply that your own mind and body are the vehicles for the influences you summon and direct in magic. Whatever influences you bring into manifestation in your magical work will thus set corresponding patterns going in you, which will then work outwards into your life: as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.

It’s only fair to note that I’ve met a certain number of operative mages who insist that this isn’t the case and that they can do whatever they want without any risk from repercussion. Their lives are smoking craters. I’ve watched some of them stumble for years from one miserable mess to another, with buckets of bad luck far beyond the normal measure landing on their heads over and over again. Ironically, if you suggest to them that maybe the cascading miseries of their lives might be the normal working out of well-known magical principles, you can expect to field an angry insistence that it just ain’t so.

I also know plenty of operative mages whose lives are, by and large, happy and successful. They have prosperous careers, enjoy generally good health, have little trouble maintaining whatever kind of relationships they prefer, and so on. All of them, without exception, pay careful attention to the law of repercussion in their magical work. They aren’t necessarily paragons of virtue in any other sense, but they know that the Raspberry Jam Principle has its flipside, which is that you can improve your own life substantially by making a habit of directing influences of healing and benediction toward other people. Namby-pamby? Call it what you like, it works.

You’ll notice I haven’t used words like “shouldn’t” in this discussion, and that’s deliberate. Once again, we’re not talking about ethics. If you like lots of suffering in your life—some people apparently do—you now know a very good way to get it.  What’s more, if you want to hurt someone magically, and don’t mind taking the hit from the inevitable repercussion, then I’m not going to tell you not to. One very effective way to work malevolent magic, in fact, is to resolve firmly that what you’re about to do is so important that you’re perfectly willing to embrace whatever the repercussions happen to be—though if you do that, it’s crucial to stick with it when the ugly stuff starts to happen. If you start whining at that point, it’s just going to mess up the working.

It’s probably also worth noting here that a working for retributive justice also involves repercussion. If you’re behaving unjustly in your life—and which of us isn’t?—you’re going to get it in the neck as the energies of retributive justice take shape in your own body and mind, and seek the nearest available outlet in your life. One proven way around this effect is to choose some situation in which you’re behaving unjustly and, as soon as you’ve done the working, do whatever you have to do to make it right. That provides a channel through which the influence can earth out, and thus gives you some control over the shape of the repercussion. On the other hand, you could choose instead to do a working to bring healing and restorative justice to the woman Brock Turner raped, in which case the repercussion is going to be to your benefit.

So should you run right out and post something on Faceplant or your favorite Pagan networking site trying to organize a group working along the lines just suggested?  At this point we move to the third lesson that can be drawn from the campaign to hex Brock Turner.

Eliphas Levi, whose knowledge of older magical traditions was considerably more extensive and subtle than that of many later mages, wrote that four virtues are paramount in magic:  to know, to will, to dare, and to be silent. (One of my teachers used to rephrase this in his inimitable style:  “to know, to will, to dare, and to shut the f*** up.”) That last virtue is much more important than it looks. The more you talk about the workings you’re doing, the less power they have: that’s a reliable principle of magic, and once again, you don’t have to believe in it to be affected by it.

The same thing, interestingly enough, affects many other kinds of creative activity. Most writers learn early on in their careers, for example, that talking about a writing project is a great way to bleed the creative energy right out of it. Still, with magic, and especially with magic in the age of the internet, there’s another issue of equal importance, which is that not everyone who reads your Faceplant post will necessarily share your goals and support your magical intentions.

A few years back, for example, friends of the Druid leader Isaac Bonewits organized an internet spell to try to save his life when he was dying of cancer. For a while there, just about every internet forum frequented by Druids had posts splashed all over it asking people to do workings that made use of a typically clunky ditty:  “Isaac’s tumor goes away, thirty more years with Phae.” (The latter reference was to his wife Phaedra.) Despite the fact that some thousands of people participated in it, the working failed, and Bonewits passed away a short time later.

I’ve long suspected that there was a simple if brutal reason behind that failure. Bonewits was not an uncontroversial figure. He made plenty of enemies—it might even be fair to say that he delighted in making them—and some of those enmities, to judge from conversations I heard at a variety of Pagan venues over the years, ran very, very deep. If some of the many people who disliked Bonewits wanted to, they could quite easily have done workings of their own, chanting a ditty of their own on the order of “Tumor, tumor, grow and spread, thirty days and Isaac’s dead,” or what have you. Since he was already gravely ill, they wouldn’t have have to carry the weight of a full-blown death spell; all they had to do was interfere with the working that was being done to save his life—and interfering with a magical working is fairly easy if you know the details of the working in advance.

The attempt to hex Brock Turner runs exactly the same risk. I’m not sure how many of my readers are aware of this, for example, but there’s an organized movement of neo-Nazi magical lodges, the so-called darkside lodges, scattered over various corners of the Western world. (Those who are interested in the grubby details can find them in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s excellent book Black Sun.) I have no contact with members of those lodges, nor have I the least interest in having any; thus I can’t be sure of their opinions on the subject, but on first principles I’d tend to suspect that they’d favor Brock Turner’s side of the case over that of the woman he raped.

Thus it’s quite possible that at this point, every detail of the proposed hexing campaign is now being discussed in the private forums that neo-Nazi occultists frequent. It’s equally possible that one or more darkside lodges are already planning or performing ritual workings to interfere with the hexing—again, this isn’t hard once you know the details of the working you want to counter. The internet is not a private space, it bears remembering, and it’s unwise in the extreme to assume that the things you post there will only reach people who agree with you.

To sum up, then, if you’re going to practice magic, it’s a good idea to be honest with yourself about what exactly you want to accomplish, and then aim for your actual goals rather than some intermediate step that you think will get you there. It’s a good idea to keep the Raspberry Jam Principle in mind, and work with magical influences whose repercussions you’re willing to tolerate in your life. It’s also a good idea not to talk about your magical workings, partly to keep from diffusing your intent and partly to keep those who might not sympathize with your goals from messing with your workings. Those are three very solid lessons to take from the situation here anatomized—and if those of my readers who happen to be operative mages choose to put those lessons to use in performing workings of healing and restorative justice for the benefit of the woman Brock Turner raped, and for all victims of sexual assault, that strikes me as a very, very good thing indeed.

On an unrelated note, I'm currently in need of decent quality scans, in JPEG format, of the artwork from Eliphas Levi's book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, usually mistitled Transcendental Magic in its English translation). If you have access to these, please put through a comment headed "not for posting" with your email address and other details. Many thanks!